More on Digital Editions

We’re already getting some response to Wednesday’s announcement that we’ll be trying out online editions of our mags starting in July. I’ve heard from quite a few people who say they welcome the opportunity to get our stuff in digital form, since it’s cheaper, easier to store, and more fun to read on a computer laptop. Me, I’m a paper and ink guy, so I think I’ll always prefer the traditional way, but I’m always open to new venues for our publications.

Our friend Johanna Draper Carlson raised some concerns on her wonderful Comics Worth Reading blog that, by giving our print subscribers free access to the downloads, we’re trying to push subscriptions at the expense of retailers. First of all, we love retailers; without the Direct Market, we couldn’t survive. But as for pushing subscriptions, sure we are. We always have been; they’re more profitable than store copies. We’re also pushing retailers to carry more of our mags, and have been for years—just with little success. With the exception of a handful of the top stores in the country who actually stock our stuff (and achieve pretty nice sales by doing so, thank you very much), our experience is most stores, if they carry our magazines at all, only order enough for their pull lists, without a single extra copy on the shelf for a potential new reader/customer to discover.

I can’t 100% blame them; with every order through Diamond being non-returnable, you’ve got to be careful not to overorder, or you’ll get stuck with merchandise you paid for in advance, and can’t sell. But there are a number of stores that keep our stuff perpetually in stock (and I mean ALL of our stuff; great stores like Midtown Comics and Jim Hanley’s Universe in New York, Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, and Amazing Fantasy in San Francisco, among others). These guys totally rock; if they sell out of a back issue of Back Issue, they track it on their computer systems, and send us a purchase order (since they mostly can’t get our old magazines through Diamond, for reasons I’ll explain later).But would it hurt the other (several thousand) shops to, once in a while, just try putting a copy of one of our mags on their shelves, for somebody new to discover? I mean, when you factor in the discount they get from Diamond, they’d be out a whopping $4 at most (and much less for many stores, who get better discounts) to give one of our mags a try as an on-shelf item.

Over the last three months, we did a mass mailing to over 1500 comics shops (1523, to be exact), offering a free TwoMorrows Sample Kit, containing one free copy of each of our mags for them to display, to see how they sell. You’d think a lot of stores would jump at getting $40 worth of free stuff to sell, no strings attached. Exactly 60 of them took us up on the offer (that’s less than 4% of shops). In 2006, we did a similar offer by phone, calling 500 shops, and got 18 stores who wanted the freebies (3.6%, so roughly the same percentage).

Hopefully those will result in some new regular customers for them (and us). But if only 4% of the country’s comic shops display our wares, we’re never going to increase our circulation that way. (And yes, more than 4% of shops sell our mags, through pull lists; it’s just that most of them don’t also DISPLAY copies, out in the open for potential new customers to discover.)
Diamond, with rare exceptions, won’t fill retailers’ reorders for our magazines, due to their seemingly arbitrary dollar order minimums (until they get enough dollars worth of orders for any single back issue of ours, they won’t send us a Purchase Order for it, so we can’t fill the order. So retailers constantly complain to me that they place reorders for our stuff through Diamond, and never get the books. I still can’t get a straight answer out of anyone at Diamond as to what those dollar amounts are on our magazines.) Back when FM International was still in business, retailers had another source to go to for our older stuff, without the minimum orders. Retailers can always order direct from us (we’re offering them better discounts than Diamond in many cases, and free shipping), but most don’t find it’s worth the hassle to place small orders direct, and have one more check to write each month. So we have to get creative in finding other ways to build our audience.

That leads us to digital editions. We’re going to try it as a test from July-December, to see if it hurts our print sales, and how it affects profitability overall. I have no interest in going to digital-only mags, so if we see our print numbers drop, we’ll end the digital versions most likely. But hopefully, the lower price of digital editions (and the addition of color, which our print circulation isn’t high enough to support, at least not yet) will lead some new readers to give our mags a try.

And our long-suffering subscribers, who’ve stuck with us for years of seeing our mags show up in comics shops while they’re still waiting on them to hit their mailbox, deserve a break. We delay Diamond’s copies an extra week to give us time to get our subscribers’ copies in the mail, so some will get theirs before they’re in stores, but the mail service is SOOOOO slow in some areas, that it’s a losing battle. So now our print subscribers will get free access to the online editions, so they can, if nothing else, thumb through the issue while waiting for it to arrive.

But comics is still a paper medium, at least to me, so I’d be surprised if we saw any kind of mass exodus of print readers to digital, even if it’s cheaper. Once you factor in the discounts most comics shops offer their customers, the digital version isn’t that much cheaper. Still, the digital editions could go a long way toward helping us reach new markets, particularly getting more readers in Europe, since they won’t have all the extra postage costs involved in mailed copies. And I’m convinced there are lots of untapped readers out there, whose budgets don’t allow them to spend $6.95 on, say, Alter Ego, but would consider trying it digitally for $2.95.

Johanna also raised a concern that we were trying to guilt our readers into not sharing their digital downloads with people who haven’t paid for them. And she would be correct! I don’t want to have to add onerous Digital Rights Management features to our downloads, that’ll make readers jump through hoops just to view a file that they paid good money for (and then not be able to move it from their work computer to their laptop without paying again). So yep, we’ll be constantly asking downloaders not to share their files. We’ll be on the honor system, and I’ll take every opportunity to remind people of it. 🙂

The digital stuff is an experiment, and we’ll be closely watching all the ramifications of it. But it’s not an attempt to circumvent retailers, or eliminate the need for Diamond (if we had to hand-mail all the print copies that Diamond carries, we’d never get our issues to press!). It’s an attempt to grow our readership, when the conventional Direct Market route has stagnated for us. We’ll see how it goes between now and December; time will tell!